Saturday, 16 March 2019

Book review - Revolt of the Widows by Stevan L Davies

Ancient history may be facinating but for one sad fact:  half of humanity had almost no voice.  We learn of all the valiant (and the digusting) deeds of men, but women play mostly a very background role.  Of course there are exceptions that stand out - Cleopatra .  .  .  .    see, I am already searching for another name.  For me the most disappointing feature of history from antiquity is not just the scarcity of heroines but the lack of female opinion.  Reading ancient texts exposes us to an avalanche of man-splaining about the human condition and how we should behave and especially of how woman should behave - largely by staying out of sight it would seem.   But how rare are the writings of female authors.  History is sadly so very lobsided, like a bird with one wing.  Hopefully today that second wing is strong enough for our bird to stay airborn though it is clearly still an uphill battle.

I am working on a project set in first century Judea and was pointed in the direction of a book by Stevan L Davies Revolt of the Widows, originally published in 1980.  The author focuses on six  Christian texts mostly penned from late-first to middle-second century and collectively known as the apochryphal Acts.  These are the Acts of John, Peter, Paul, Andrew, Thomas and of Xanthippe.  Using the filter of Ockham's Razor which states that "simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones", biblical historians have assumed that as all known New Testament authors were masculine then the Acts, whose authors are unknown, were most probably written by men.  Period.  Stevan Davies however uncovers a surprising challenge to this assumption in Revolt of the Widows.

The apochryphal Acts tell tales of wonder and miracles performed by early Christians.  The focus of most of the stories is on wandering itinerant "apostles" who are welcomed into the towns and homes of (mainly) chaste female devotees.  Miracles are performed by not only the itinerant apostles but also by the female characters in the stories.   Apart from the apostles who are typically revered as representatives of Christ, it seems that the other male characters are portrayed as weak or violent or sexually predatory.  A precedent is set which encourages a female audience to either remain virgins or, if married (no more than once), to give up conjugal relationship with their husband and instead become "betrothed to Christ".   Such perfection raises these women to be shining lights of exemplary Christian behaviour, a near impossible feat in a world where females were seen to exist purely for procreation and as servants to men.

The above is necessarily a very compressed precis of Davies' detailed analysis of the Acts.  However the surprise comes when he questions just who might have written these works.  Davies flips the Razor and demonstrates admirably that it is the widows themselves who were most likely the authors of the apochryphal Acts.  He shows that the women of the stories are the true heroines, that the everyday men, husbands and others are lesser beings and are even unworthy of the female protagonists.  Even the itinerant apostles, although direct representatives of Christ, are sometimes shown up to be weak and unreliable. 

Davies argues convincingly that such a world view of the sexes would have been inadmissable via the pen of a male author.